What Is The Internet’s Effect on Deep Reading?
Here’s a challenge: can you read this whole post without getting distracted? Can you resist the urge to skim each paragraph for the “gist of it”, and instead read each sentence carefully, reflecting on its meaning, even thinking about how it might apply to your life?
Chances are this might take some work: if you are accustomed to reading on the web, you’ve likely also grown accustomed to the online reading style known as the “F-shaped pattern “, where when you open a webpage, you read in an F-shape quickly from left to right across the top, and then scan the middle until you get to the bottom, absorbing a few main ideas but not truly engaging with any of them. It’s a quick and easy way to catch the major points, enabling you to get an overview of everything presented, perhaps giving you the sense of comprehension. But as the research shows, it’s likely that you are absorbing very little.
And when you’re websurfing, reading for entertainment, or perusing blogs, maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re just skimming. But as the internet is increasingly the source for all our content – the news we read, the research we do for work and school, the entertainment we enjoy– we must ask the question: how is the internet changing the way we read, and the depth with which we take in information? What are the implications for society if the deep, reflective thinking associated with reading is replaced by the “web-page graze”?
In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid ?” writer Nicholas Carr raised many of these same questions. In it, he explored the idea that websurfing is restructuring the way we process information, conditioning us to take in a lot of information at once, but not in much depth. Carr opens his article talking about how he believes the internet has reprogrammed his attention span:
“I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he says. “I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now, my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
“…What the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface life a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Carr interviews a fellow writer who says this type of reading has generalized to reading books as well:
“I can’t read War and Peace anymore” he says.”I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
I’ve noticed that many students report the same problem. After becoming accustomed to reading quick bits of information online, it has become harder to stay focused on long reading assignments that require sustained focus. Students are more and more foregoing reading long articles and books and instead look for quick summaries on sites like Wikipedia and Sparknotes– sites which allow them to get an overview of the content quickly, but don’t require the same type of reflection and commitment that reading a book requires. If people, and in particular, students, are reading less thoroughly and getting more “summarized content”, how will this affect the type of thinking they engage in? What will be the impact of online reading on the depth with which people immerse themselves in the subjects they are reading about?
Is How We Read Important To Who We Are?
Sven Birkerts, in his essay,
“The Owl Has Flown ” (printed in the anthology Making Sense ), presciently addressed the internet’s potential impact on our intellectual ethic, and would likely be worried for the fate of student scholarship in the age of online reading. Birkerts echoes Carr’s observations about reading behavior, and then reflects more philosophically on the implication that this type of reading style has for the virtues of depth and wisdom, believing that reading online leads not only to a lack of depth in what we read, but a lack of depth we cultivate as human beings:
The reading act is necessarily different than it was in its earliest days…the reader (now) tends to move across surfaces, skimming, hastening from one site to the next without allowing the words to resonate inwardly. The inscription is light but it covers vast territories: quantity is elevated over quality. The possibility of maximum focus is undercut by the awareness of the unread texts that await. The result is that we know countless more “bits” of information…(but) we know them without a stable sense of context.
Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. The computer, our high-speed, accessing, storing, and sorting tool, appears as a godsend. It increasingly determines what kind of information we are willing to traffic in; if something cannot be written in code and transmitted, it cannot be important.
(But in this paradigm) there is no chance that any piece of information can unfold its potential significance… Where electronic impulse rules, and where the psyche is conditioned to work with data, the experience of deep time is impossible. No deep time, no resonance; no resonance, no wisdom.”
Carr states similar views in his article:
“The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading…is indistinguishable from deep thinking. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in ourselves but in our culture.”
I think it’s interesting when Carr says, “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds.” I wonder if material garnered online– given the sheer amount of content, and the skimming-type reading style that we often employ when reading it– resonates with the reader as much as content read in actual books, magazines, and newspapers, and can set off those “intellectual vibrations” in the same way reading a book does. Is there something about reading on a computer. constantly distracted by advertisements, wanting to check e-mail, and the impulse to read other websites, that keeps information from “unfolding its significance”, the way it can in a book?
Also, I think Carr is right that “deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking.” I wonder, how is reading online affecting student scholarship? Are students becoming conditioned to expect shorter, quicker versions of content, and losing the capacity to engage in deeper thinking as a result? Is information being retrieved but not retained? If so, does this support the idea that Birkerts puts forth that as a result of losing depth in reading, we are also losing our capacity for deep thought as human beings?
How has the internet changed the way you read? Do you find it more difficult to engage in “deep reading” of long books and articles because you are accustomed to reading quick bits of information and skimming for “overviews” online?
Do you agree with Birkerts and Carr that, as a result of being “information retrievers” on the web, we will experience a loss of depth and wisdom as a society?
Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!